Oklahomans in the Spanish-American War

by John Alley


Many of us retain a vivid memory of the stirring days from the sinking of the battleship Maine, February 15, to the declaration of war with Spain, April 19. In the year of our Lord, 1898, nations still respected the laws of war and common decency. The first blow of that war fell a week after the declaration of war, instead of before it. Interestingly enough this blow also came in the Pacific, when Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila bay on May 1.

It is an appropriate time to recall the facts which represent the military effort of the potential state of Oklahoma in that first foreign war of this generation. At that time the area of what is now the state of Oklahoma consisted of Oklahoma and Indian Territories, then known as the “Twin Territories.” The estimated population of this area in 1898 was approximately 700,000. From this area and population the available records show that three troops of cavalry and five companies of infantry, a total of 849 officers and men, went into uniform for service in the Spanish-American War, having been recruited on the volunteer basis that was then in use.

The actual war with Spain lasted exactly 115 days, the hostilities closing with the protocol signed August 12, 1898, although the peace treaty was not ratified until February 6, 1899. The military operations in Cuba were confined to two engagements: a two-hour skirmish at Las Guasimas on June 24, and a two-day battle at Santiago, July 1-2. In these two engagements Oklahoma suffered 34 battle casualties; 7 killed and 27 wounded. The Twin Territories divided this roll of honor almost equally between them, with the Indian Territory leading by four names.

The casualty list for the eastern half of the present state of Oklahoma follows:

Killed: Tilden W. Dawson, Vinita; Silas R. Enyart, Sapulpa; Milo A. Hendricks, Muskogee; William T. Santo, Choteau.

Died: Yancy Kyle, McAlester. (Died of fever)

Wounded: William C. Carpenter, Vinita; Ed Culver, Muskogee; John W. Davis, Vinita; Captain Richard C. Day, Vinita; Thomas Isbell, Vinita; Joe A. Kline, Vinita; Frank R. McDonald, Oolagah; Thomas F. Meagher, Muskogee; Richard L. Oskison, Vinita; Nathaniel M. Poe, Adair; George H. Seaver, Muskogee; William M. Simms, Vinita; Lieutenant John R. Thomas, Muskogee; Schuyler C. Whitney, Pryor Creek.

The casualty list for Oklahoma Territory was:

Killed: Captain Allyn K. Capron, Fort Sill; Roy W. Cashion, Hennessey.

Wounded: William Baily, Norman; Fred N. Beal, Kingfisher; Dilwyn M. Bell, Guthrie; Alexander H. Denham, Oklahoma City; Edwin M. Hill, Tecumseh; Thomas M. Holmes, Newkirk; Shelby F. Ishler, Enid; Edward W. Johnston, Cushing; Robert L. McMillen, Shawnee; Henry Meagher, El Reno; Marcellus L. Newcomb, Kingfisher; John D. Rhoades, Hennessey; Starr W. Wetmore, Newkirk.

President McKinley issued two calls for volunteers in response to which Oklahoma and Indian Territories engaged in two feverish periods of recruiting. In each of these, our territories participated jointly with Arizona and New Mexico Territories in filling quotas for two regiments. Under the first call a regiment of cavalry was organized which became the “First U. S. Volunteer Cavalry.” Under the second call a regiment of infantry was recruited which became the “First Territorial Volunteer Infantry.” In the former regiment our territories furnished three troops and in the later, five companies, the Territories of Arizona and New Mexico furnishing the balance of each organization. The cavalry regiment was organized within 30 days after war was declared while the job of getting the infantry regiment into form did not get under way until some 60 days later.

The cavalry regiment, previously noted, became known as the “Rough Riders.” The brief career of this regiment is so well known to Oklahomans and others that little need be added. All the Oklahoma casualties in the military operations in Cuba, above listed, were members of troops “D” and “L” of this regiment.

Mobilization of the organization was completed at San Antonio, Texas, by the middle of May, 1898; by the end of that month it was en route by train for Tampa, Florida. At this point four troops and all the horses were left, the other eight troops, dismounted, sailing for Cuba on June 13, as part of General Shafter’s expeditionary forces. Landing at Daiquiri, Cuba, on June 22, it was brigaded with the first and tenth regular cavalry (the latter being Negro troops) under General Young, in General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry division. Two days later this brigade engaged in a two-hour combat at Las Guasimas with a Spanish column which was moving toward Santiago.

From the viewpoint of the Spaniards, this brief combat was in the nature of a rearguard action from which the Spanish forces withdrew in good order, taking their wounded with them. They moved directly westward a few miles and joined the remainder of the Santiago defense forces which had taken up a position just east of the city. This Spanish defense line had its left center resting on San Juan Hill, a mile east of Santiago; its left flank extended three miles to the northeast to the strong point known as El Caney, and its right flank was extended to Moro Castle at the mouth of Santiago harbor.

A week later, on July 1 and 2, the “Rough Riders,” still as a part of the second brigade of Wheeler’s cavalry division, participated in the attack which dislodged the Spaniards from San Juan Hill and the El Caney fortifications, forcing them back into the environs of Santiago. The following day, Cervera’s Spanish fleet sailed out of Santiago and was promptly destroyed by Sampson’s blockading squadrons. Immediately thereafter negotiations for the surrender of the city and its defense forces were opened. After a delay of 15 days the surrender was accomplished on July 17. This incident ended the war so far as Cuba and the “Rough Riders” were concerned. The total losses of the regiment in the brief campaign were 128, of whom 23 were killed and 105 wounded. Under the circumstances these losses were severe, amounting to more than 20 percent of the personnel engaged. August 7, the regiment sailed for Montauk Point, Long Island, landing there August 15 and a month later it was mustered out. Thus ended the brief career of what was probably the most highly publicized regiment during its existence, of any fighting unit in American military history.

Owing to the delays encountered by a bewildered war department, the period of recruiting for the second group of military units raised in Oklahoma and Indian Territories did not get under way until the first days of July. These units became company “D” of the first battalion, and companies “I,” “K,” “L” and “M” of the third battalion, First Territorial Volunteer Infantry. John F. Stone, of Guthrie, then Assistant Attorney General of Oklahoma Territory, was commissioned as Major and became the commanding officer of this battalion. The cities where these units were mustered in and the company commander in each case, follow:

Muskogee—Company “D”— Captain Earl Edmundson.

Guthrie—Company “T”— Captain Harry Barnes.

Chandler—Company “K”— Captain Roy Hoffman.

Stillwater—Company “L”— Captain Robert Lowry.

Kingfisher—Company “M”— Captain Fred Boynton.

As previously indicated, the quota contributed by Oklahoma and Indian Territories in this infantry regiment was much larger than that in the cavalry regiment, raised under the first call for volunteers. A company of infantry in 1898 was made up, of three officers and 106 enlisted men (privates and non-commissioned officers). The enlisted personnel of a troop of cavalry was about 25 percent less than this. As a result, the five companies of infantry took more than double the number of Oklahomans into the military service than the three troops of cavalry had done. The officer personnel of these five infantry companies justified the confidence which was placed in them, then and later.

In the original organization of the three troops of cavalry from Oklahoma only two troop commanders were commissioned from our territories. These men were Captain Robert B. Houston, Guthrie, troop “D,” and Captain Allyn K. Capron, Fort Sill, troop “L.” The captain of troop “M” was Robert H. Bruce, of Mineola, Texas. In addition, three lieutenants were commissioned from Oklahoma Territory and three from Indian Territory as follows:

Oklahoma Territory—Lieutenant Schuyler A. McGinnis, Newkirk; Lieutenant Jacob Schweizer, El Reno; Lieutenant Albert S. Johnson, Oklahoma City.
Indian Territory—Lieutenant Richard C. Day, Vinita; Lieutenant John R. Thomas, Muskogee; Lieutenant Ode C. Nichols, Durant.

Later on Lieutenant McGinnis was promoted to captain and placed in command of troop “I” and Lieutenant Day became captain of troop “L.” Within 30 minutes after the firing opened at Las Guasimas, June 24, Captain Capron was dead, the first army officer to be killed in the war.

The writer enjoyed the interesting experience of having enlisted in both these regiments. He was rejected on his first enlistment because he exceeded the prescribed height for cavalrymen by four inches, but was accepted on his second. Six feet, two inches, constitute no bar to an infantryman, providing other items of one’s anatomy check properly, such as weight, waist and chest measurements, feet, heart, lungs, eyesight, teeth, and a few other incidentals. The physical examinations and mustering in of these applicants for enlistment in these organizations was a hurried and slipshod process. The number of applicants at each enlistment station was much larger than the quota which could be accepted. As a result of the haste which characterized the examining process many applicants were accepted who should have been rejected and during the brief period of service which followed, a number of men in each organization proved physically unfit and were discharged for disability. Naturally these discharged men promptly applied for and secured pensions on the ground that the disability was acquired in line of duty. From personal contact with men in the service I am convinced that a number of these volunteers who gave in their ages as thirty-five to forty were actually nearer sixty. Experience has proven that the volunteer system of recruitment for military service in time of emergency is distinctly inferior to the selective service plan and much less democratic.

It was a motley group of husky pioneers who assembled at Fort Reno near the middle of July, 1898, the point of mobilization for this Oklahoma infantry battalion. “The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker” was an entirely inadequate description of the half-thousand recruits mobilized at Fort Reno immediately following their muster-in at the home stations. A recent check of the muster roll of company “M” discloses the fact that occupations of the 106 enlisted men ranged all the way from lawyer, teacher and bookkeeper to bricklayer, cowboy and bartender. In all, 26 occupations are listed; ages ranged from 17 to 42. Ten married men were included and three foreign countries contributed their varying quotas.

These five companies were soon established in camp on the sun-baked prairie slope immediately east of Fort Reno. There we did “squads east and west” in the blistering July and August heat, wearing army blue woolens. But woolen uniforms, worn during strenuous drill exercises during Oklahoma’s hottest season, were not the worst of the discomforts we suffered. We were crowded into small wall tents, without floors, other than the bare ground. No sleeping cots were furnished. Each soldier had a “bedsack” which he filled with straw and placed on the ground inside the tent. The balance of the bed equipment was a blanket—no pillow, no sheets. Our meals were prepared in an open kitchen over which was stretched a canvas, without walls or fly screens. Our latrines were open ditches screened only by piles of brush. Thus, flies circulated freely from the kitchen to the latrine and back again.

It was a happy relief when orders came to join the balance of the regiment at Camp Hamilton, Kentucky. News of the signing of the armistice had taken a lot of the enthusiasm out of us but the bluegrass hills of Kentucky added zest to the otherwise humdrum life of camp routine, and were a wholesome respite from the burning sun of an Oklahoma summer. The camp at Lexington was a large one in which were a number of regiments which had been mobilized earlier than ours and were better drilled and seasoned. These soldiers, recruited from the cities of the eastern states, looked askance at us raw and rugged westerners. Rumors soon spread through the camp and the city of Lexington that we were a bunch of Indians, cowboys and desperadoes. Part of this was true as our Oklahoma companies had quite a sprinkling of Indians, while those from New Mexico and Arizona had many men of Mexican, as well as Indian blood. As a result ladies, young and older, visited our camp in throngs and insisted on meeting our Indians and cowboys.

When we joined the Arizona and New Mexico companies at Camp Hamilton, regimental parades and practice marches increased our interest in camp life. We learned that former Governor Myron H. McCord of Arizona was our colonel and that our lieutenant-colonel was a regular army officer, D. D. Mitchell. In the late autumn of 1898, the First Territorial Volunteer Infantry was moved to Camp Churchman, Albany, Georgia. It was mustered out of service at this latter camp on February 13, 1899.

When Congressman Hepburn of Iowa demanded that “the patriots of the land be asked to join in the war,” it was natural to assume that volunteers who returned from the war would be rewarded for their military service by political preference at the polls and through the appointive system. The years that have passed since the return of Oklahoma volunteers in the war with Spain have not recorded the same degree of public service honors which the generation following the Civil War heaped on those war veterans, north and south. In Oklahoma this rule seems to have been honored in its breach rather than in its observance.

Immediately after the war, former Captain F. L. Boynton of company “M,” of Kingfisher, was an eager aspirant for a federal judgeship, but failed to get the appointment. In 1907, former Captain Roy Hoffman of Chandler, was a candidate for United States senator but was defeated by Thomas P. Gore. Captain Robert Lowry, of Stillwater, resumed his law practice in his home town, where he lived unostentatiously until his death a few years ago. So far as the writer knows he never became an aspirant for an important public office.

Two other captains of this regiment, both of Guthrie, Harry C. Barnes and James M. Wheeler, re-entered the military service in 1899 and spent the remainder of their active lives in the Coast Artillery Corps. Both rose to the grade of colonel; both performed distinctive service in the World War and both are now living quietly in retirement, Colonel Barnes at Hollywood and Colonel Wheeler in Washington, D. C. A third officer of this regiment, Lieutenant Richard Cravens, of Muskogee, likewise re-entered the military service, rose to the grade of colonel of coast artillery, served with distinction in the World War and was buried a few years ago with high military honors in Arlington National cemetery, Washington, D.C.

One of the best trained soldiers of my own company was, sergeant John Hackett, of El Reno. After his return to Oklahoma, Hackett enjoyed a long and interesting career as a peace officer, serving as deputy United States marshal and deputy sheriff of Canadian county. He remained active until the age of 80, serving as district court bailiff in his home town, El Reno, from which he enlisted in 1898. Prior to 1898 Hackett had served in the United States army. Our company commander used to call upon Hackett to execute the manual of arms in front of the company so the rest of us “rookies” could see how a real soldier handled his rifle.

Another good soldier of our company was Corporal David C. (Pat) Oates, of Alva, who also served as an Oklahoma peace officer. Pat Oates was deputy warden at the state penitentiary during the administrations of Governors Haskell and Cruce. He was a fearless chap whose physical courage cost him his life when he attempted, single-handed, to stop a desperate prison break at McAlester. Oates was shot down in cold blood by the leader of this break, but his challenge served as the undoing of the desperadoes, who, a few minutes later were riddled by the bullets of a prison guard, an expert rifleman who had been warned by the shooting which killed Oates.

The outstanding “Rough Rider” in the public service of Oklahoma was Captain Frank Frantz of Enid, later of Tulsa, recently deceased. At the outbreak of the war Frantz was living at Prescott, Arizona, where he was commissioned as first lieutenant in troop “A.” Captain “Bucky” O’Neil, of this troop was killed July 1, during the attack on San Juan Hill. Frantz was promoted to captain, and after being mustered out came to Oklahoma. In 1904 President Roosevelt appointed Captain Frantz governor of Oklahoma Territory. In 1907, Governor Frantz was nominated for state governor by the Republicans but was defeated by Charles N. Haskell of Muskogee, the Democratic nominee.

A number of other Rough Riders filled public positions in Oklahoma and Indian Territories. Prominent among these were Chris Madsen who served as regimental quartermaster sergeant in the First Volunteer cavalry. Madsen’s career as soldier, peace officer, and public official is too well known to Oklahomans to call for further comment.

To me the outstanding war service family of Oklahoma is that of Territorial Governor Cassius M. Barnes. Both of Governor Barnes’ sons served in the Spanish war; they also served in the World War, as did his grandson, Harry C. Barnes, Jr. Their records follow:

1. Cassius B. Barnes was appointed to the United States Naval Academy from Oklahoma Territory in 1891; graduated in 1895; served as Ensign in Admiral Sampson’s blockading fleet off the Cuban coast in 1898. He was retired in 1912 with the rank of commander, but in 1917 was called back into active duty as instructor at the naval academy during the World War; now living in retirement in Manhasset, Long Island.

2. Harry C. Barnes, captain, Company “I,” First Territorial Volunteer Infantry, 1898-99. Re-entered the military service in 1899 as first lieutenant in the 34th Volunteer Infantry; in service in the Philippine insurrection 1899-1901; promoted to captain and decorated with the silver star medal for gallantry in action. Later he was transferred to the Coast Artillery orps where he rose to the grade of colonel; served in the American expeditionary forces as colonel of artillery and awarded the distinguished service medal. Now living in retirement in Hollywood, California.

3. Harry C. Barnes Jr., was born in his grandfather’s home in Guthrie. Appointed to the United States Military academy from Oklahoma, he served as first lieutenant of infantry, American Expeditionary Forces, World war; twice cited for gallantry in action; now lieutenant colonel serving with the 3rd army corps.

After a lapse of four decades informed and dispassionate Americans will doubtless agree on certain advanced conclusions as to the “unpleasantness” of 1898. In the first place the war was something of a national disgrace in the matter of military unpreparedness. Sending troops into Cuba at the opening of a tropical summer clothed in heavy blue woolens was ridiculous. Forcing the artillery of our regular army and the riflemen of our volunteer infantry to use black powder, which exposes their positions to the murderous fire of an enemy using smokeless powder, was worse than ridiculous. The lack of proper hospital and medical service in Cuba was little less disgraceful than the inadequate sanitation and medical service in southern mobilization camps, which resulted in thousands of preventable cases of typhoid fever and hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

Editor’s Note: This essay of a veteran’s reflection on war, politics, and his most unforgettable comrades was originally published by Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1942. Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 24, December 15, 2014.